Shardlake on Disney+ review: Arthur Hughes is magnetic in this Tudor murder mystery

It has been 20 years since author CJ Sansom sold the screen rights to his first Shardlake murder mystery, Dissolution. Since then, he’s written eight more novels – six of which feature the investigations of the eponymous Tudor lawyer-slash-detective Matthew Shardlake – and it’s only now that his hero has made it to the screen.

Fortunately for fans of the books, and for historical drama shows in general, Shardlake the show proves worth the wait. This is a tightly-plotted, gorgeously atmospheric piece of television: one that delivers a welcome change of pace from the platform’s previous whimsical jollies of Renegade Nell and The Artful Dodger.

The year is 1537, and Henry VIII is on a mission to dissolve Britain’s ancient – and wealthy – monasteries. He’s given Thomas Cromwell the job, not Mark Rylance – the Cromwell of the Wolf Hall BBC adaptation – this time, but an altogether angrier and more menacing Sean Bean), who calls on the services of lawyer Matthew Shardlake.

Played by Arthur Hughes in his first TV lead role, Shardlake himself is a man of contradictions. An educated man of letters, he is nevertheless treated with suspicion by the local populace thanks to a disability (Hughes has radial dysplasia; Shardlake in the books is described as a “hunchback”) with which he was born.

However, Cromwell sees Shardlake’s potential as a spy and detective – which is handy, because a recent envoy to the isolated St Donatus monastery has wound up without a head. Soon, Shardlake and fellow Cromwell employee Jack Barack (Anthony Boyle) find themselves dispatched to find the killer, and dissolve the monastery in the name of His Majesty.

 (Adrienn Szabo)
(Adrienn Szabo)

It’s when the action moves to St Donatus that the show really get going. The Dissolution is a fascinating time period, and Shardlake really digs into what it means for the people who lived through it.

The monks we meet are terrified of the threat Shardlake represents, but still live and work in incredibly opulent surroundings. They feast every night, their candlesticks are solid gold and their money comes from the poor, who pay pennies for the privilege of having a monk say prayers for them. It’s a good life; no wonder one of them might be willing to kill to keep it.

The series takes the time to explore this – whilst also digging into the true motives of Cromwell, which are (of course) not as innocent as they seem.

There are strong performances across the board, particularly the scenery-chomping Bean, but this is Hughes’ show. He imbues Shardlake with a flinty-eyed pragmatism that clashes with the cheeriness of his companion, Jack Barack. He’ll need it: as he digs further into the mystery of the deaths at St Donatus, the mists and marshland upon which the monastery sits seems to close in on him and danger seems to lurk around every murky shadow.

There isn’t a lot of joy to be found here. What there is instead is tension. As the episodes pass and the body count piles up, Shardlake (the show) becomes an examination of the horrible things men to do each other in order to survive – or what they will do to further a cause in which they believe.

Fortunately, Shardlake does tension incredibly well, and the end result is eminently watchable. Grim in the best way; watch and feel the winter chill draw back in.

Shardlake is streaming on Disney+ from May 1